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New Experiments with Irish Traditional Music
During Darmstadt Summer Course 2023

In this open space discussion and workshop exploration, led by Irish conductor and fiddle player Sinead Hayes, with help from soprano Lisa Newill-Smith, we looked at some classic Irish traditional tunes - jigs, reels and ballads, with a view to tangling them, and creating spontaneous new musical worlds.**

Then, using the brand new TangleTrad 'TangleBox', we road tested some Tanglings on classic Irish traditional tunes and songs. We committed to the TangleTrad manifesto: Permission to TangleTrad is Hereby Granted - Tangle at Will. We finished with the world’s first TangleTrad Session. Sheet music was provided!

Instrumentalists, singers and Cage fans came along - much fun was had, but something new emerged...

** No Irish Traditional tunes will be permanently harmed by TangleTrad.

TangleTrad: About


TangleTrad, and the TangleBox were  invented by Irish fiddle player and conductor Sinead Hayes during the Darmstadt Summer Course 2023, as a way to move the needle of our reverence for Irish Traditional Music. 

Sinead has grown up immersed in the music, and loves it to the very core of her being. But it's time to bring in outside voices, new ideas and directions. Performers and composers from outside the silo of Irish Traditional music can now feel they have permission to engage with the music and use it as a catalyst for, and component of, their own creative practice. 

The TangleBox uses the Irish Traditional pub session as a starting point, amplifying and specifying the micro musical practices that trad players of all levels have engaged in at some stage of their musical development.

Permission to TangleTrad has been granted. Tangle at Will!

TangleTrad: Text


Can be used with any music, regardless of genre....

The TangleBox uses the Irish Traditional pub session as a starting point, amplifying and specifying the micro musical practices that players of all levels engage in during a 'normal' session at some point in their development!  

The TangleBox:

  1. Where’s it gone? Leave out random notes, or groups of notes, returning to the melody seamlessly - as if the radio volume had suddenly been turned down, then turned up again…Feel free to play any ‘notes’ on any part of your instrument - e.g. behind the bridge, on the tailpiece etc.

  2. Pause for effect: Randomly elongate notes in the tune, returning seamlessly to the main melody afterwards. This works very well in combination with No. 3

  3. Keep it unsteady: Speed up and slow down over short and long periods of the tune - feel free to play the whole tune really, really fast with no nuance whatsoever (with your very best ‘show off’ face), then slow back to a normal pace with a modest shrug!

  4. Am I in tune?: Play phrases of varying lengths a quarter tone flat or sharp, alternating with phrases in the ‘correct’ tuning

  5. Can’t remember the key: Randomly introduce accidentals to create ambiguity, swap existing sharps for naturals, naturals for flats etc.

  6. Hedge the tonal centre bets: Randomly transpose phrases of any length up or down. Return to the original key frequently.

  7. Take the Wrong Path: At any point in the tune, skip to any bar. Play from there for a short time, then return to your original departure point (with an optional sheepish expression!) Another variation on this is to get stuck in a repeating loop with a bar or phrase a random number of beats long.

  8. Play the Wrong Version: At various points in the tune, completely vary the notes/ harmonic structure, add in an extra beat/quaver here or there, returning to the original version as you go.

  9. Follow the Rainbow: While playing the tune, randomly insert an improvisation in the style of a contemporary composer - think Xenakis, Newirth, Lachenmann, Braxton…. Use elements of the main tune - melodic, rhythmic, programmatic. Vary the length (don’t linger too long) and then rejoin the tune from where you left off. This could be an opportunity for live electronic elements also. Bonus points for using an Irish contemporary composer as inspiration. (List below)

  10. Channel James Joyce: At any point in the tune, suddenly break off, stand up (or sit with great importance and intent) and deliver a poem or monologue in the most dramatic fashion possible. Feel free to continue for slightly longer than feels comfortable. Then, without warning return to the tune from where you left off. Use any text - but bonus points for choosing a text by an Irish writer or poet!

* There are just a few rules for TangleTrad

  1. Never play Irish traditional music straight - NEVER, NEVER, NEVER! At its best it is highly rhythmically nuanced. Listen to some brilliant Irish traditional musicians playing untangled trad, and copy the nuance.

  2. TangleTrad works best if you get to grips with the unmangled version of the tunes. You can even play these unmangled versions in sessions all over the world with other musicians - there is a core set of tunes that most players of Irish Traditional music know!

  3. Be warned however, If you play TangleTrad in a normal Irish traditional session context, your efforts may lead to horrified looks, and a subtle (or not so subtle) invitation to cease and desist. In this case, compliance is advisable!

  4. Add your own elements to the TangleBox - and share it with your fellow Tanglers.

  5. Have fun with it!

  6. This is not John Cage’s Roaratorio - although that is somewhere deep embedded in my psyche!

TangleTrad: Text


Instructions for a TangleTrad Session

When two or more Tanglers meet to play together, then the magic can really begin! Feel free to play with sheet music until you become an expert Tangler!

Here are a few guidelines for successful ensemble TangleTradding - although feel free to experiment! Failure is always an option!

  1. Pick one tune to collectively tangle at a time.

  2. Pick a baseline tempo for everyone to stick to.

  3. Pick two or three elements of the TangleBox to begin with.

  4. At any point, any Tangler can go rogue and use an element of the TangleBox not chosen by the group. Give them a disdainful stare (obvs!) but then join them if you like!

  5. If you join someone in an improvisation, join their musical world, and interact with each other. Bonus points if you coordinate the exit back to the main tune together.

  6. Frequency of Tangle interventions is key - aim to Tangle at different points in the tune to your neighbour.

  7. Aim to play very well together - even if it turns out you are in canon a few quavers apart (yayy!!) In this case hold out as long as possible before giving in and joining in unison!

  8. Very important: Aim to vary your individual dynamics so that the foreground (Hauptstimme if you will!) and levels underneath are always shifting in focus.

  9. Anyone playing a transposing instrument, play from the same sheet music as your fellow Tanglers and don’t attempt to transpose. Cellists, bassonists and others, read the treble clef as if it is bass clef - swapping periodically to tenor clef to keep it interesting!

  10. In Irish music, many tunes have a multiple 8 bar structure. These 8 bar sections (called parts) are often repeated - although sometimes not. In the course of the tune, any Tangler can choose to ‘forget’ to do the repeat, going straight onto the next part.

  11. Tunes are usually repeated in their entirety 2 or 3 times, but more if the groove is good. To keep it going, someone usually roars 'Another round'. This may lead to another round of drinks coming, if the session is in a pub. Double p(o)ints for ALL if this happens!

  12. To change tune, it is customary for the session leader to shout ‘Hup’. This usually comes around 1 - 2  bars before the end of the tune. The session leader can be a rotating role - Irish traditional music is all about sharing the glory!

  13. When you hear the ‘Hup’ listen to where the session leader is in the tune. Keep playing until they reach the end of the tune, then stop abruptly.

  14. The session leader starts a new tune (straight away without missing a beat!).

  15. Listen to the first few bars, identify the new tune, then join in and recommence the mangling on the new tune!

  16. To finish the set (the two tunes you have played), the set leader will again shout ‘Hup’. 

  17. Again, listen to where they are in the tune, and follow them onto the last note.

  18. Do not play the same last note as any other Tangler - this is VERBOTEN! Use quarter tones, multiphonics, harmonics etc. and add some sporadic textural movement, but once you have settled on a note, stick to it - no hopping around!

  19. Aim to be the last person playing the last note!!

  20. Keep a track of all your points and bonus points as you go along. Make sure to be generous, but not too generous, when awarding yourself bonus points. Then compare your score with your fellow musicians. The highest and lowest scores are immediately discarded. Include optional passive aggressive squabbling over the middle ground.

Good TangleTrad Tunes:

  1. The Kesh Jig

  2. Haste to the Wedding (Jig)

  3. Whiskey in the Jar - Ballad

  4. The Maid Behind the Bar (Reel)

  5. The Sally Gardens (Reel)

  6. Danny Boy - Ballad

  7. Drowsy Maggie Reel

  8. Cooley’s Reel (both in Eminor!)

TangleTrad: Text


Irish Contemporary Composers for Improvisation Inspiration:

Jane O' Leary

Greg Caffrey

Gráinne Mulvey

Raymond Deane

Rhona Clarke

Frank Corcoran

Elaine Agnew

Eduard Zatriqi

Amanda Feery

Omar Zatriqi

Jennifer Walshe

John Buckley

Sources of Tunes: Brilliant collection of standard and new tunes, constantly updated by the trad community. An amazing resource for generating 'trad' tunes using AI. Thanks to Jennifer Walshe for the tip.

TangleTrad: Text
TangleTrad: Music Player
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